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Boogie On: Filling the DeMarcus Cousins Void

Ben Dowsett examines whether Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere can step into some big shoes in Sacramento.

Ben Dowsett

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Whatever your thoughts on it, an era has ended in Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins’ next technical foul suspension will be served under a new flag, his basketball played while wearing a new jersey.

Typically accompanying the end of such a colorful era is that pesky reality: The beginning of a new era.

In Sacramento’s case, it’s one they’re almost historically badly prepared for among franchises who traded an All-Star level player in the recent past. These deals typically net multiple young pieces and picks: The Jazz got a veteran point guard replacement (Devin Harris), the third overall pick from the most recent draft (Derrick Favors), cash considerations and two first-round picks from the Nets for Deron Williams barely six years ago. Williams almost surely wasn’t as valuable a player in a vacuum as Cousins is today.

The Kings didn’t even approach half that haul, and while remaining contract length and Boogie’s notable flaws definitely played a role, it’s mostly their own fault. They could have had more in return at dozens of points prior to the actual trade, but the devastating combo of a meddlesome owner and an incompetent figurehead making major basketball decisions never allowed it to happen.

Time moves forward regardless. And while the short-term coffers for replacing even chunks of Cousins’ production are woefully short, there are a couple intriguing frontcourt names who at least make the future worth talking about.


The DeAndre Jordan comparisons are virtually unavoidable for Willie Cauley-Stein. And while this typically lazy shorthand misses some details just like all of them do, its origins are easy enough to see. Both spent at least a season under a well-known post bruiser (Zach Randolph spent most of Jordan’s rookie year in Los Angeles), but neither really boasted many of those kinds of skills to develop. Both entered the league as little but raw athletic freaks with NBA size and hops.

The current iterations look nothing alike as defenders, but the vague outlines are there. They’re most obvious when each guy blocks a shot; Cauley-Stein’s combination of pure hops plus great timing with his opponents’ jumps is when he looks most eerily similar to DeAndre:

Cauley-Stein has posted respectable SportVU figures as a rim protector to this point in the league. The timing similarities mostly end there, at least when comparing the present versions of both players.

Cauley-Stein is clearly a guy with years of experience letting his athleticism make up for deficiencies elsewhere in his game, a tactic all but a handful of NBA guys have to rid themselves of quickly. Watch him make a visibly unforgivable error by not even getting so much as a hand on his man for a box-out, but then erase it moments later with sheer freakiness.

That stuff may fly for now, but it won’t if Cauley-Stein is to ever playing meaningful minutes for a competitive team. Those couple beats of complete inactivity, even as he’s looking right at the guy he’s supposed to box out, are a microcosm of some of his biggest warts – it’s almost as if he feels like he needs to save up all his energy for those giant leaps. That’s not how things work in the NBA.

The effect is most visible in his rebounding numbers, which are horrific at both a team and individual level. He’s in the bottom 15 for both defensive rebounding percentage and overall rebounding percentage among 80 guys 6-foot-10 or taller, and borderline bottom-five among a smaller group of guys at least 7-foot or taller. The Kings have been about an average rebounding team on the year; they drop to among the league’s worst when Cauley-Stein is on the floor.

It’s tough to say how much of this is fixable given all the turmoil in town since he arrived, and maybe even tougher to say whether the mental leap Jordan made to go from a raw athlete to a defensive star is possible for Cauley-Stein. Most guys don’t have the passion for it.

Some of the indicators are decent. WCS swipes steals more often than Jordan at this age, and doesn’t foul as often. Jordan was two years younger when he entered the league, so these comparison numbers include two extra seasons for him.

This is usually an advantage to the younger guy no matter what, and probably is here too. Cauley-Stein’s extremely abnormal development cycle to this point could form an argument the other way, though. Jordan made his leap later than most, and it’s not out of the question for Cauley-Stein either if his true, healthy development only really began about two weeks ago (it might have).

If he can come anywhere close on the defensive end, the other side of the ball definitely contains some positive signs. Cauley-Stein is no bucket-getter, but he’s also nowhere near the liability Jordan was offensively at age 23, even despite DeAndre’s extra NBA years by that point.

Jordan’s turnover rate at that age was nearly double Cauley-Stein’s at this point in his career, and that came with a smaller team possession load than Willie has handled. Cauley-Stein is already in the mid-60s as a free-throw shooter, a level Jordan still hasn’t even approached in nine years. Likewise, he has dribble skills Jordan would kill for:

That’s a limited skill picture, of course. Cauley-Stein is already showing impressive chops as a roll man in pick-and-roll sets, with the hops and dexterity to dunk just about anything close to him, but he has a long way to go to match Jordan – maybe the most powerful player in the game in this role.

That’s really the rub as far as the Jordan comparisons go. There’s a real chance Cauley-Stein already has more complementary skills than the Clippers’ star right now, but Jordan isn’t great because of any of those things; he’s great because of how insanely good he is at the few things he does well, which just happen to be some of the most important skills a big man can have in the modern NBA. Cauley-Stein ever reaching those heights is unlikely, but perhaps not impossible, and whether he ever comes close will define his long-term success.


Toiling in even greater obscurity than Cauley-Stein is Skal Labissiere, the 28th overall pick in the 2016 draft.

Once considered an elite blue chip prospect heading into Kentucky, Labissiere had one of the stranger freshman years for a high-ceiling Calipari product. He played just 16 minutes a night and was often overshadowed by bigger names, to the point where it surprised plenty of folks in the league when he even declared for the draft. The general consensus was that Labissiere could use another year of class, even in an NBA world where access to pro training and coaching typically far outweighs any stay-in-school benefits.

That consensus might still be accurate, but now Labissiere’s grading scale gets a whole lot steeper. He’s barely across the 100-minute barrier, and all the numbers in his orbit might as well be question marks.

Labissiere has just the faintest touch of “unicorn” DNA in him – a 6-foot-11 leaper with a big wingspan and some guard skills.

If Cauley-Stein is still struggling to find his feel for the game, Labissiere is still learning the very definition of the term. He has no idea where to be on the floor at a given moment, especially when it comes to defensive rotations and anything second-level on either end. Like a lot of guys in his position, he wants to shoot every time he gets the ball.

He’s also rail thin, listed at just 225 pounds for that 6-foot-11 frame. Labissiere has a long way to go improving his body, though his frame makes it feel easily possible. Until he gets there, he could benefit from a bit more subtlety when he tries to move guys who aren’t even as big as him anyway.

It’s virtually all potential for Labissiere at this point, but it’s tantalizing potential.

His shooting mechanics are fantastic for a guy his size, almost Anthony Davis-esque in that single area. He moves in a unique way that few bigs do, and should be a valuable commodity as a floor-runner once he gets his conditioning up to speed. He gets off the ground incredibly quickly, and it’s only stuff between the ears keeping him from real potential as a rim protector – he has the timing to do it, but is too easily baited into fouls and can’t read decoy actions for what they are just yet.

Labissiere is another of those guys who started playing basketball much later than any of his peers. This can be a false flag, but it certainly means more than nothing. The samples are way too small to judge from, but some of his shooting metrics and on-court team figures are already pointing in the right direction. He only needs a couple of these unicorn skills to hit home at the NBA level to be a successful player, which is what makes his type so salivating.


Between Cauley-Stein and Labissiere, there might be just enough to give Kings fans some modicum of hope for the future of their frontcourt.

Neither will ever duplicate Cousins’ production or even come close, but both could offer elements that fit the modern game more snugly – Cauley-Stein’s shot-blocking and rim-running, Labissiere’s guard skills, length and shooting. The Kings can push the pace more often with two strong bigs running the floor, especially if Labissiere ever adds enough strength to play center on his own and split the pair up more often.

(As an aside, for all his other flaws, it sure would have been fun to see these two get some real time under speedster coach George Karl. The Kings were too busy turning down much bigger Cousins offers and creating in-house drama for that to ever happen, though.)

They could form a pretty tantalizing duo together, too. Labissiere should have the lateral chops to stick with most small-ball power forwards these days, and if the strength ever comes around, he’d be a problem for those guys on the other side. He can already shoot over all of them, and if the shooting touch from deep becomes more than a hypothetical at some point, spacing won’t be an issue around Cauley-Stein.

The duo has played 71 minutes together this year. That’s not long enough to make any final calls, especially with the garbage time they saw before Cousins’ departure, but it’s long enough to note that their plus-16 net per-100-possession differential is pretty damn impressive. Labissiere has the best on court/off court splits on the team since Cousins left, another sign that’s still positive even if it’s due for a regression when the samples stabilize.

It’s early, and the Kings have earned less trust than any other NBA front office. There are still so many ways they could screw this up. Even if they don’t, there’s no guarantee Cauley-Stein or Labissiere provides any real long term excitement.

They’re easily the best of a very limited frontcourt lot, though, and all the drama might have caused a few folks in the league to look past these types in Sacramento. The next couple years will be a fascinating test of life after DeMarcus Cousins.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Mitchell Robinson May Prove Competence of Scott Perry

Scott Perry is still fairly new on the job, but it’s impossible to argue with the early returns.

Moke Hamilton

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With some eye-popping performances, the neophyte simultaneously caught the attention of the New York Knicks and front offices and scouts across the league.

Sure, merely a few weeks ago, he was largely considered an unknown quantity, but after an impressive stint at the Las Vegas Summer League, we all know his name.

It’s Mitchell Robinson.

Like his fellow rookie Kevin Knox, in short order, Robinson has caused quite a bit of a stir.

He’s just the latest example of things that Scott Perry has done right.

As players like Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas accept contracts barely worth enough to buy LeBron James lunch on a consistent basis, the predictions of a “nuclear winter” for NBA free agents seem to have mostly come to fruition.

For the past two summers, general managers and team executives have spent their money as if it were on fire, and as a result, we’ve seen many of the league’s teams watch their flexibility go up in smoke.

Since hiring Perry, the Knicks have done the opposite. Time and time again, the message tossed around internally at Penn Plaza has mirrored what we’ve been told publicly—the Knicks believe they will have a serious shot at signing a marquee free agent in 2019 and have put their emphasis on shedding salary to the best of their abilities.

It took all of one summer league game for us to learn that the club had signed Robinson to a team-friendly four-year contract. According to the New York Post, the deal is only guaranteed for three years and $4.8 million. If Robinson comes anywhere near the productivity he showed in summer league, the value and return on investment will be remarkably high.

So if you’re keeping count, let the record fairly reflect that Perry’s major moves for the Knicks have been trading Carmelo Anthony, hiring David Fizdale, drafting Kevin Knox and Robinson, and subsequently strategically managing his salary cap situation so that he could offer Robinson a contract that was so advantageous to the Knicks that some believe Robinson fired his agent as a result.

With the Knicks, Robinson will have to earn playing time and beat out Enes Kanter and Luke Kornet for minutes, but Kanter isn’t considered to be a core member for the club’s future, so the task doesn’t appear that difficult.

What this all means in the end is that Knox and Robinson will combine to earn just $5.4 million next season.

And what it also means for the Knicks is that the performance of Knox and Robinson at the Las Vegas Summer League isn’t the only thing the club should be celebrating.

It’s fair at this point to say that Perry has both improved the team’s future prospects and made a few moves that at least appear to have been the right decision.

Of course, time will tell, but on the continuum of unknown quantity to certain conclusion, the best you can hope for is a positive sign.

Perry has given Knicks fans quite a few. And when you realize that the selection that the club used to grab Robinson was a critical piece of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—a trade executed by Perry—that statement becomes all the more credible.

* * * * * *

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks had two rookies who opened eyes the way Knox and Robinson have. What’s been most pleasing about the two, however, have been the ways in which they complement one another on the basketball court.

Knox has impressed mostly with what he’s done on the ball, while Robinson has for what he’s accomplished off of it. The instincts and timing that Robinson has in conjunction with his athleticism are quite reminiscent of Marcus Camby.

In hindsight, we can fairly proclaim Camby to have been ahead of his time. Camby was the prototype to which players like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan aspired.

As a big man, Camby was one of the few players in the NBA who could capably guard all five positions on the basketball court and wasn’t at the mercy of an opposing point guard when switched out on a pick-and-roll. His nimbleness and second jump ability were remarkable for a man his size, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche playing alongside more offensively talented players such as Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

We don’t know if Robinson himself will succeed in the NBA, but we do know that his archetype is the kind that does. So much of what gets young players drafted and paid in the NBA is about physics. If a guy can do one or two things better than other players his size, the job of his coaches and front office is to find ways to maximize those advantages and fit them within a team concept to exploit inferior players at his position.

That concept has been where the Golden State Warriors have run circles around the rest of the league. So no, while you can’t conclude that Robinson is going to end up being anything near the player that Marcus Camby was, what you can conclude is that he has the physical gifts to be effective. Whether he ends up being effective will ultimately boil down to what Robinson has inside of him and what David Fizdale is able to do to bring it out.

Rest assured, though, to this point, Scott Perry has certainly done his job.

That much is a fact.

* * * * * *

Of all words in the English language, “irony” and its adjective (“ironic”) are among those that are most often misused. Irony is often confused with coincidence.

In its simplest term, irony is meant to describe a situation where there’s an occurrence that’s the opposite of what should have been expected.

In other words, just a few weeks after Carmelo Anthony dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked him whether it was “ironic” that the Hornets also yielded 61 points to his buddy LeBron James in Miami.

That wasn’t ironic. That was just Charlotte.

On the other hand, irony was more along the lines of the Denver Nuggets seemingly becoming a better and more cohesive team after Anthony’s talents had been traded to New York.

To do you one better, a more recent example of irony can be found in the fact that Isaiah Thomas was traded by the Boston Celtics after recording the highest single-season scoring average of all time among player shorter than six-foot tall.

Irony is fans of the Los Angeles Lakers having no choice but to embrace LeBron James after spending the entirety of his existence downplaying his career accomplishments in order to properly exalt Kobe Bryant.

Most appropriately, though, for a fan of the New York Knicks, irony is knowing that, despite Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf and the Knicks not signing or trading for any big named player, there’s probably more reason to be optimistic about the club’s future than there has been in recent memory.

Yea. That’s irony. The Knicks have always been looking for their savior—before Carmelo Anthony, it was Stephon Marbury.

In it all, who would have thought that the franchise’s savior could end up being Scott Perry?

Like Knox and Robinson, it’s still a bit early to certainly declare that Perry is who will lead the Knicks from the abyss.

But just like Knox and Robinson, to this point, it’d be quite difficult to argue with the early returns

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding up to four new voices in 2018, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team other than in New York & LA; we are full in those markets.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful. E-mail that to openings2018@basketballinsiders.com

 

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NBA Daily: Yuta Watanabe Using Versatility, Defense To Push Forward

Undrafted forward Yuta Watanabe impressed all week at Summer League for the Brooklyn Nets — now he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get an NBA opportunity.

Ben Nadeau

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Heading into Las Vegas Summer League, it finally became difficult to look past the Brooklyn Nets. After three-straight seasons merely existing in the equivalency of basketball purgatory, the Nets brought an exciting, young roster out west — one that included Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and their two recent first-round selections, Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs. But when three of the four marquee names ended up watching from the sidelines, Brooklyn needed somebody to save the day — and as it turned out, his name was Yuta Watanabe.

Watanabe, 23, was an undrafted four-year senior out of George Washington this summer, but very quickly, the 6-foot-9 prospect has made a name for himself. Through his five games in Vegas, Watanabe averaged 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 41 percent from the floor, while nearly leading the banged-up Nets in minutes along the way. And although they were the only winless team in Vegas, Watanabe was a major bright spot for Brooklyn and said that he felt himself improving early in the process.

“Yeah, I’m starting to get comfortable,” Watanabe said following a recent Summer League defeat. “Our teammates didn’t know each other and we didn’t play well today — but fourth quarter, I thought we played together. I could attack the rim more, so I think I’m getting comfortable right now.”

Of course, Watanabe’s eye-opening stretch is not an indictment on every other franchise for not taking a late flier on the Japanese-born shooter either. With front offices looking to lengthen and shape the careers of their draftees at every turn, seniors are often passed up in favor of younger potential. In 2018 alone, only 11 seniors were selected at all — Grayson Allen and Chandler Hutchison were the lone first-rounders — a number down two from the year prior.

In spite of his pre-draft workouts and favorable numbers at George Washington (16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game), Watanabe was always a long-shot to get drafted. But given the inroads to the NBA via the G-League or a two-way contract, Watanabe is far from finished in chasing his professional dreams.

“I was so excited — right after the draft, my agent called me and he told me: ‘You’re playing with the Nets.’” Watanabe told Basketball Insiders. “I was so excited, also he told me that there was going to be a lot of international players. As an international player, I was like so hyped.”

And it’s true, the Nets — led by general manager Sean Marks, a native New Zealander — have made a concerted effort to search out and acquire talent however possible. Watanabe was joined on the roster by the aforementioned Musa and Kurucs, of Bosnia and Latvia, respectively, Shawn Dawson of Israel, Ding Yanyuhang of China and Juan Pablo Vaulet, an Argentinian stash that’s one of the final holdovers from the last front office regime.

But while Watanabe may not hold a guaranteed contract, his noteworthy run with the Nets in Vegas could put him in pole position to earn one of those elusive two-way deals. Last season, the Nets ended the year with James Webb III and Milton Doyle, the latter of which the franchise tendered a qualifying offer to late last month, as their two-way assets. Still, things can change awfully fast in the NBA and Watanabe definitively fills two needs that Brooklyn has long sought-after since Marks took over in February of 2016: Multi-positional defense and reliable three-point shooting.

During his final season at George Washington, Watanabe hit on 36.4 percent of his long-range attempts and averaged 1.6 blocks per game as well — fully transforming into the flexible prospect he is today. In fact, the Nets have struggled to find consistent three-point shooting in the frontcourt since Brook Lopez was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, so Watanabe could be useful at that tricky stretch four position.

Although it’d be a new adventure for the defensive-minded grinder, Watanabe is up for it all the same.

“I mean, that’s one of my strengths, versatility is one of my strengths. If they want me to play four, I’m fine with that,” Watanabe said. “If I can hit shots — I’m 6-foot-9, long, athletic, so I have no problem playing the four.”

Of the nine Nets players to make one or more three-pointers per game last season, just two of them — Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham — regularly slotted in at power forward. And beyond that, only Joe Harris, Nik Stauskas, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Cunningham finished their 2017-18 campaigns with a higher three-point percentage than Watanabe. As a team, the Nets tossed up 35.7 three-pointers per game — second-most in the NBA — and converted on just 35.6 percent of them, a rate that left them in the league basement.

Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic 10 conference, George Washington made just 5.5 shots from downtown per game, with Watanabe accounting for 1.7 of them on his own. Certainly, nobody expects Watanabe to immediately continue that success at the NBA level — but there’s a precedence and fit here within a franchise that’s been laser-focused on player development as of late.

On top of all that, Watanabe is the reigning winner of the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Award and he proved it out in Vegas. Following his final game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday, the former Colonial finished with a total of blocked eight shots and defended both guards and forwards throughout the tournament — a facet of his game that Watanabe takes pride in.

“Defense is also [one of] my strengths in college too,” Watanabe said. “I can’t remember how many blocks I got today, but I was able to show that I can play defense — even at the four.”

The recent acquisitions of Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur will make Watanabe’s path to a big-league opportunity that much harder — but the Nets have also benefitted from a strong G-League affiliate in recent seasons as well. So even if Watanabe doesn’t receive a two-way contract, he may have landed with a franchise well-suited to bring the very best out of him.

Should Watanabe ever reach the NBA, he’d be just the second-ever from Japan to do so — following in the footsteps of Yuta Tabuse, a 5-foot-9 point guard that played in four games for the Phoenix Suns back in 2004-05. But for now, Watanabe is all about helping out his new franchise in whatever way he can — whether that’s from behind the arc or below the rim.

“Make some open shots, play defense and just play as hard as possible — so I think that’s my job right now.”

Nobody knows what the future holds for Watanabe quite yet — but as of now, he’s doing exactly that.

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